The dusty little town of Bodhgaya has changed a bit since the first time I came as a pilgrim in 1999. At that time, Bihar was known as the most corrupt and impoverished state in India. We were warned by the chai wallah at each tea shop that travel was very dangerous and that roving gangs threw nails into the streets so that they could rob stranded travelers when their tires blew out. The chai wallahs often asked, “Have you seen Bandit Queen?” referring to the 1994 film based on the life of Phoolan Devi, a gang leader who roamed these plains. An overwhelming sea of beggars lined the gate of every temple. There was a palpable hunger and desperation in the air. Back then, it struck me that none of the locals seemed to smile.
Today, the town of Bodhgaya—where Shakyamuni Buddha attained enlightenment—is still dusty, but there are far fewer beggars, and the children grin at me on the street. Thanks to recent reforms in government and the work of organizations like the Mahabodhi Society and the Light of Buddhadharma Foundation, there are projects in the works to improve sanitation, waste disposal, and education.
It seemed fitting that a conference on the future of Buddhism be held in its birthplace, a site venerated by millions, once neglected but now full of hope. Last October, the International Network of Engaged Buddhists, or INEB, focused its biannual gathering on “The Future of Buddhism: From Personal Awakening to Global Transformation.” The ambitious agenda matched its grand venue (adjacent to the sacred Mahabodhi Temple): the newly constructed Thai temple complex of Wat Pa-Buddhagaya.
Organized in partnership with Deer Park Institute, the Jambudvipa Trust, and Youth Buddhist Society of India, the INEB event brought together over 350 luminaries—a diverse range of monastics, scholars, artists, and activists from Asia, Africa, Europe, Australia, and the Americas. The list of speakers included cofounder and Nobel Peace Prize nominee Ajarn Sulak Sivaraksa, Roshi Joan Halifax, Hozan Alan Senauke, Venerable Dr. Tsering Palmo, and Venerable Bhikkhuni Dhammananda. Participants met in workshops, panels, and field trips to discuss Buddhist economics and social entrepreneurship, sustainability and climate change, war and conflict resolution, traditional art and new media, working with death and dying, challenges facing the monastic community, youth issues, and dharma education.
The Tibetan Buddhist teacher Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse Rinpoche delivered the keynote address on the first day of the conference. He pointed out that the future of Buddhism hinges on its relationship with culture and money:
We need to look carefully at how culture and tradition—old habits that have metamorphosed into tradition—are hijacking the true buddhadharma. This is important not only to traditionally Buddhist places but also for new hosts….It is not that culture has to be discarded, but we have to realize that they are two different things. The teachings have to be delivered through culture, but their relationship is like the cup and [the] tea.
The future of Buddhism, he explained, relies not only on the sangha and religious heads. Patrons of dharma will play a critical role in shaping its future by determining how they give, to whom they give, and in what situations they choose to give. “We need a more intelligent economics and [a broader perspective on] success,” he said.
During a panel on “Dharma for the Future,” Joan Halifax commented, “As a very polarized activist in the 60s, I recognized that the fire of my passion was being fed by a very disturbed internal process.” Her sentiments reflected a notable shift in the culture of social activism from a dualistic Us versus Them paradigm to one that evolves existing systems by working within them and developing new models that pose promising alternatives. Halifax went on to say:
We have to address the issue of structural violence, whether it has to do with the marginalization of the dalits or women or dying people or people who are impoverished, or even other species. We have a responsibility to engage in activities that are related to the transformation of our social and political system.
In this spirit, attendees witnessed the launch of an exciting initiative called the Right Livelihood Fund. Its goal is to mentor individuals and groups interested in building small businesses and social enterprise projects that are sustainable, ecological, and supportive of spiritual growth.
Matteo Pistono, author of In the Shadow of the Buddha and a forthcoming history on engaged Buddhism, reflected on the conference participants:
What impresses me most is how this varied group collectively works to reduce within ourselves greed, hatred, and ignorance, while simultaneously combating how these poisons manifest in society as consumerism, militarism, and mass media.
In conjunction with the main conference, INEB organized two satellite events that focused on youth issues and Buddhist art. The International Buddhist Art Gathering’s “Pilgrimage to the Roots of Our Heritage” invited 33 artists from China, Laos, Burma, Thailand, Vietnam, Sri Lanka, India, and the United States to transform the premises of another Thai temple, Wat Thai Buddhagaya, into a veritable arts village for seven days. I was among the artists who came to participate. The workshop culminated in an exhibition, shown at Tibet House in New York City last November, of over 35 original works reflecting both traditional and new media art forms.
The other event, “Young Bodhisattva Program for Leadership Training in Spiritual Resurgence and Social Innovation,” hosted 35 participants from Japan, South Korea, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Burma, Sri Lanka, and India at the Bodhgaya Cambodian Temple. A generation of young Buddhist leaders has emerged from this program over the last decade, including Prashant Varma, cofounder of the renowned Deer Park Institute, a center for the study of classical Indian wisdom traditions in Bir, India.
Harsha Navaratne, INEB Executive Committee Chairperson and founder of Sewalanka Foundation in Sri Lanka, commended the young Buddhist leaders in his opening remarks:
The youngsters are our most valuable asset. They understand the challenges of the modern world, and they have shown enormous creativity and commitment as they search for innovative new ways of working. May they have the courage to take risks and the strength to learn from experience. The future of Buddhism is truly in their hands.
At the beginning of the conference, I found it difficult to wrap my head around “the future of Buddhism.” It seemed such a vague and vast topic. But the INEB gathering imparted a sense of confidence that not only are we all—each and every one of us—contributors to our present circumstances, but individually and collectively we shape the future in very deliberate and simple, if ambitious, small steps. The conference demonstrated this with the launch of visionary programs like the Right Livelihood Fund, the inception of an intercultural Buddhist Art center, and the development of local initiatives through the Light of Buddhadharma Foundation’s Beautiful Bodhgaya program. Whether we are applying for a grant to start a social enterprise or lending our time to improving waste disposal systems at sacred sites, our power lies in our commitment to our ideas and in our ability to network with others who will support our endeavors. A sense of pragmatic optimism and collective solidarity pervaded every conversation I was a part of.
Addressing the congregation, Sulak Sivaraksa quoted the poet Rabindranath Tagore:
The time has come for us to break open the treasure-trove of our ancestors and use it for our commerce of life. Let us, with its help, make our future our own, and not continue our existence as the eternal rag-pickers in other people’s dustbins.
Seize the day. Indeed, seize the future.
One thing is for certain: the future holds the next eagerly awaited INEB conference, scheduled for 2013 in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. And if the changes in little Bodhgaya are any indication, that future will be clearer and cleaner once we take up a broom and simply begin to sweep.